“In early adolescence I was completely in the grip, at once ambiguously pleasant and unpleasant, of time passing as a series of deadlines – an experience that has remained with me every since. The day’s milestones were set relatively early in that period and have not varied. Six thirty (or in cases of great pressure six; I still use the phrase “I’ll get up at six to finish this”) was time to get up; seven-thirty started the meter running, at which point I entered the strict regime of hours and half-hours governed by classes, church, private lessons, homework, piano practice, and sports, until bedtime. This sense of the day divided into periods of appointed labor has never left me, has indeed intensified. Eleven a.m. still imbues me with a guilty awareness that the morning has passed without enough being accomplished and nine p.m. still represents ’lateness’, that movement which connotesOn Deadlines, and Morning: Edward Said “In early adolescence I was completely in the grip, at once ambiguously pleasant and unpleasant, of time passing as a series of deadlines – an experience that has remained with me every since. The day’s milestones were set relatively early in that period and have not varied. Six thirty (or in cases of great pressure six; I still use the phrase “I’ll get up at six to finish this”) was time to get up; seven-thirty started the meter running, at which point I entered the strict regime of hours and half-hours governed by classes, church, private lessons, homework, piano practice, and sports, until bedtime. This sense of the day divided into periods of appointed labor has never left me, has indeed intensified. Eleven a.m. still imbues me with a guilty awareness that the morning has passed without enough being accomplished and nine p.m. still represents ’lateness’, that movement which connotes the end of the day, the hastening need to be thinking about bed, the time beyond which to do work means to do it at the wrong time, fatigue and a sense of having failed all creeping up on one, time slowly getting past its proper period, lateness in fact in all the word’s senses.” Edward Said, Out of Place, a Memoir (2000?) p. 105. Keywords: writer’s routine, Edward Said musicology, Edward Said memoir excerpts, Edward Said as pianist, piano-playing academics, Eliezer Gurarie, early morning milestones, Bach-playing academics, scholars and Bach, Bach in Northern Ireland and Lebanon. the end of the day, the hastening need to be thinking about bed, the time beyond which to do work means to do it at the wrong time, fatigue and a sense of having failed all creeping up on one, time slowly getting past its proper period, lateness in fact in all the word’s senses.” Edward Said, Out of Place, a Memoir (2000), p. 105.
About two weeks after the disappearance of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the Huanqiu Shibao released a series of photographs of past criminals who had, through arduous years of “thought reform,” found a path toward the redemption in the eyes of the Chinese people. Sitting in front of my computer screen, dumbfounded, I wondered if indeed this was still the CCP model for legal proceedings: seven years of detention until the witnesses could be adequately coached/brainwashed to say what they needed to say in order to be released at a propitious time for China’s diplomacy.
To liken Ai Weiwei to the criminals of Japan’s “Unit 731,” the bacteriological weapons researchers who took Chinese living subjects in Manchuria from 1936-1945, might on its surface appear to be either radical or just plain stupid. However, it does reveal a certain continuity with PRC modes of justice: the presumption of guilt against the entire Chinese people, the civilizing agency of the CCP (a true “correctional policy”), and the need to deliberately orchestrate justice in order to bend skeptical turns in international public opinion, on China’s timetable, of course.
By contrast, in Germany, the opposite has been and continues to be true: the CCP is likened to the East German secret police (the Stasi), while Ai is assumed to be a principled protector of justice and human rights. There is, in other words, a strand not so much of anti-communism as of Ibsen at the heart of the German view of Ai Weiwei: He appears to stand alone, and thus stands strongest. And, in the mold of Dietrich Bonhoffer, who resisted a different kind of totalitarianism, Ai is nothing if not prolix. While critics of Ai Weiwei’s profligacy and sometimes crass commercialism – including my Tacoma colleague Paul Manfredi, whose work on Ai is never less than thoroughly illuminating – see Ai as a flawed figure, the German ethos is such where his flaws can be subsumed and completely outplayed by his anti-statist tendencies. The principle is the thing that matters, after all.
Occasionally little rifts arrive in the narrative – such as when Ai Weiwei’s real estate agent in Berlin is revealed to have had deep ties with the Stasi – but those, I’m afraid, are the subject for another day.
[A cross-post of an essay which I posted on SinoNK.com. -- AC]
Yesterday, Corée_Actualités launched a short missive which functioned as a kind of bouleversement of the normal: a 90-member delegation of the DPRK’s Unhasu Orchestra (consisting of 70 players) will be performing at the Salle Pleyel in Paris this coming March 21. The French Radio Symphony Orchestra (l’Orchestre de Radio France) will be playing alongside Unhasu, under the direction of the South Korean conductor Chung Myung-Hwa. (Like most successful conductors, Chung holds a couple of jobs concurrently; he is also the director of the Seoul Philharmonic.) The Unhasu Orchestra, as readers may recall, is an elite bunch which was closely associated with Kim Jong Il and which continues to serve as the literal pulse of the fast-beating heart that is the revolution in Pyongyang. The Mangyongdae lass who pours coffee and plunks a bass guitar in search of foreign currency in the Dandong restaurant looks up to the orchestra with a kind of awe — there is no higher position for the entertaining elite, and the material benefits conferred to the orchestra members are substantial. As the French press digests the story — which has inspired no features yet in Liberation.fr or LeMonde, but which surely will — we at SinoNK.com will endeavor to keep you informed. In the meantime, the news, covered in brief at FranceTV’s “Culturebox”, sparked an analytical turn which is at hand presently. — Adam Cathcart
Blockages and Breakthroughs: Cultural Diplomacy and North Korea
by Adam Cathcart
The present general consensus about cultural diplomacy and North Korea appears to rest upon the following assumptions:
a. North Korea’s blockade against Western culture has gone from near-total (under Kim Il Sung) to endangered but still vigorous under Kim Jong Un;
b. North Koreans, especially youth, are desperately in need of alternate modes of culture (essentially, ours if not precisely James Turnbull’s South Korea);
c. North Korean musical and performance culture has been stunted rather than stimulated by the cult of Kim family leadership;
d. North Korea’s relatively massive state expenditures on the arts are essentially about ideology, and building a core of loyal elites in Pyongyang;
e. Performances by Western or South Korean groups in North Korea are acts of “soft power” subversion which can serve to undermine the state;
f. Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un are essentially musical dilettantes whose primary purpose for attending any performance is to amplify applause and reveal the political stock of whatever generals are in the retinue;
g. the themes and message of North Korean music, and the musical bureaucracy, are not necessary to analyze, because they prevaricate against the very notion of individual expression.
Notice also what is completely absent from the above litany:
a. North Korean culture is exportable;
b. North Korea has one of the most comprehensive systems for musical education in the world;
c. the North Korean cultural bureaucracies, in terms of goals, budgets, and politics are completely comprehensible to their allied Chinese counterparts;
d. the North Korean bureaucracy is studying, but not imitating, how China is slowly privatizing its own socialist cultural industry ownership;
e. North Korea has a state Symphony Orchestra and a contemporary music ensemble capable of playing at the international level.
Very rarely does anyone challege any element of the consensus described, and rarer still does anyone have the temerity to argue for the unspoken elements laid out above. Perhaps this is why the appearance of a certain Norweigian on the scene (covered with utmost delicacy by Evan Ramstad) has been so unsettling; with his accordions and flip-books, the artist appears to believe in actual cultural exchange.
The festival makes several discomfiting assertions; and not once do they mention the concentration camps! (But must the camps stalk the edge of every conversation of North Korea? As Simone de Beauvoir complained about paramters on postwar French and American discussions of Stalinist gulags, such obligatory caveats become awfully wearisome; everybody knows the camps exist.) In any event, to the Norwegian publicist-summary:
Morten Traavik calls on both locals and visitors to Barents Spektakel [a festival in northern Norway] to take part in a pioneering record attempt and a test of our ability to act together as one: with the help of North Korean mass games instructors we will try to create Norway’s biggest living picture, hopefully with several hundred participants.
Following the signals of the North Korean instructors, every participant turns over pages of a colorful flip-book, becoming one of the hundreds of living pixels forming huge, shifting mosaic pictures of well-known motives from the High North. ME/WE also puts our communal spirit to the test: Are we western individualists able to subordinate ourselves to the collective discipline necessary to act together as one, if only just for some hours? Join the project and find out! [...]
ME/WE is Part 1 of a bigger project THE PROMISED LAND (along with Gold Stars and Norway on Norway) by Morten Traavik, that he has developed in North Korea through years of travels to the world’s most secluded country. This unique collaboration has resulted, for the first time ever, in a larger group ofNorth-Korean artists coming to Norway and Northern Europe, as participants in Traavik’s project. THE PROMISED LAND opens our minds for a possibility of dialogue, overcoming mutual suspicion.
According to Liberation.fr, the accordion players were invited to the festival, but Traavik was not sure if they would come or not. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Scandanavia, a Finnish ice skater has to apologize for entertaining North Korean kids at a recent competition in Pyongyang.
Sports as cultural exchange: There is a poignant scene in Robert Egan’s brashly carnivorous book, Eating with the Enemy, in which a team of North Korean female soccer players travels to the US for the Atlanta Olympics. After a wild shopping trip to WalMart near an interstate highway, the team returns to the hotel, whereupon the team goalie goes to each room to collect the television cords so as to prevent the women from watching cable television. Perhaps this is a horrifiying moment; the replication on American territory of the DPRK’s information monopoly. It is the extension of a North Korean state cultural quirk into a new realm. In a text that opens up a number of apertures, sometimes painfully so, this anecdote brings forward the notion of a refutation of the principles of cultural exchange even as one is engaged in it.
This is a point that could be similarly made when it comes to Chinese-language education in the DPRK: One could point to the growth of Confucius Institutes in Pyongyang as a sign of change. The North Koreans seemed comfortable enough with the idea to allow Vice Premier Li Keqiang to visit Chinese language students at Kim Il Sung University.
By the same token, should China have any hopes for their language at a university named for a man who, in spite of being fluent himself, famously said “Why should we speak Chinese in our own country?” Perhaps we should be skeptical of the notion that Chinese language education in North Korea will aid in opening the DPRK up to further foreign influence. Chinese-fluent North Koreans, if their ideology remains solid, would just as soon join the online comment wars in defense of their system than supinely listen to their endless supply of would-be Chinese pedagogues.
And why should the North Koreans trust either the Scandanavians or the Chinese? After all, when the Danish Embassy in the PRC decided to have a film festival entitled NORDOX in three major Chinese cities last December (as I discovered to my total shock that month, via pamphlet, in a small art gallery in Shanghai), the Chinese Cultural Ministry approved the screening in Beijing and Guangzhou of the film “Yoduk Stories [耀道故事].” Do you suppose the North Korean Embassy noticed?
The meaning of cultural exchange in the North Korean context remains in flux.
Not only is it in flux, but the Unhasu Orchestra now occupies the center of the debate. KCNA absolutely seethed earlier this month at a Chosun Ilbo critique of the orchestra’s recent work. The North Korean article, most of which is reproduced below, is itself worthy of much, much more attention than it has heretofore received (emphasis added, my commentary in brackets):
Pyongyang, February 11 (KCNA) — The south Korean reptile paper Chosun Ilbo recently let loose a spate of invectives about the local performance tour made by the Unhasu Orchestra, the DPRK’s renowned art troupe.
Having no elementary understanding of the mass-based art, this paper echoed what was aired by Radio Free Asia engaged in the anti-DPRK smear propaganda. It claimed that “the performance was not received well by audience” and “it brought them burden rather than pleasure”.
This was wicked elements’ trumpeting aimed at doing harm to the single-minded unity of the party and people.
How can such human scum understand the people of the DPRK and its arts?
Inspired by songs, the Korean people’s 80 odd year-long just revolutionary struggle started, advanced and won victories.
The Korean revolution and people held aloft the banner of “Let’s always be cheerful although our path is thorny!”, the banner of confidence and optimism, during the Arduous March, the forced march.
In this glorious course, songs and arts in the DPRK have served as valuable ideological and moral pabulum [e.g., sustenance] for the people making revolution that a large quantity of food can hardly substitute.
Even after the loss of the father whom the Korean people deeply trusted and followed, they drew a thousand-fold strength and courage from the songs presented by the orchestra [which comes to personify the leader in the style of snow] after the start of the advance in the new year. It is setting the hearts of people afire with reverence for the leader in various parts of the country [including Wonson and Huichon]. Its performances evoked a lively response among audience as they helped consolidate the unity between the leader and the people [as per Kim Jong Il's theories, which have their roots in Germanic throught (see Acta Koreana article, cited below)] and aroused among them ardent longing for him.
The service personnel and people of the DPRK joined the orchestra in singing songs in tears and rose up, inspired by them. What the above-said media asserted is nothing but a shriek of despair made by those taken aback by the might of the arts, the hot wind raised by the orchestra more powerful than a nuclear bomb. [Mock KCNA all you like; this is easily the best sentence written by anyone in 2012, Rushdie and Keillor included.]
The reptile paper, a mixture of the American style and Japanese way of life, can never understand the true character and value of the DPRK’s arts.
They were so displeased with its local performance tour that they claimed it was unprofitable, the absurd assertion of a merchant. This suffices to guess their level of knowledge about arts. [The whole point being that profitability and market principles are an up-side-down way of looking at the arts; the whole point is that they are not profitable; rather, the point is that the state, understanding the need for Bildung, makes the outlays anyway for the spiritual health of the populace.]
In related news, a huge new Kim Jong Il cantata functions as the latest refinement of the ever-growing Gesamtkunstwerk cultural apparatus in the DPRK:
The Korean unification which seems destined to happen in our lifetimes (should we live to be as old as de Maiziere, the ex-East German Prime Minister who now dines for free amid the musical chairs of Unification Ministers in Seoul) is going to be absolutely ghastly when it comes to the question of culture and cultural integration. Is North Korean culture completely destined for the rubbish bin of history? Are North Korea’s cultural bureaucrats and musicians all going down with the regime, being tied so closely to it? Can the North Korean vision of art and culture be separated from the glorification of a man and a family who absorbed the lessons of Stalinism and left the rebel-turned-dictator in the dust? Or does North Korea have a distinct and viable future precisely because of its mode of culture, its “games”, its music, its sport, and its willingness to thrust the supremely faithful outward, where they shall perform, bathe in applause, collect the agreed-upon currencies and headlines and then pivot, homeward, where the great pedal tone of the revolution awaits, the Urthema, the body and Gestalt of the leader upon whose brow every anonymous worry has been cast, and from whose hand every benefit flows?
Adam Cathcart, “North Korean Hip-Hop? Reflections on Musical Diplomacy and the DPRK,” Acta Koreana Vol. 12, No. 2 (December 2009): 1-19. (Full text as pdf. here.)
Adam Cathcart, “Inside North Korea: French Edition,” Sinologistical Violoncellist, September 5, 2011. (Includes footage of a hip-hop kid in Pyongyang.)
Isaac Stone Fish, “Pyongyang Rock City,“ Foreign Policy, October 21, 2011. (In which the author is quoted.)
Darren Foreman, “North Korean hip-hop,” World of DarrenF, June 7, 2010. (In which the notion of KCNA-rap is spawned in London.)
Jaeyeon Woo, “NK Portrait: From Gulag to Toy Robot,” WSJ Korea Real Time, April 1, 2011. (Rap, Ryanggang-do kids, and “Yoduk Story” stories).
The Berlin transmediale is, to my knowledge, one of the very best annual conferences (a “convergence” is more the appropriate word) which exist on Planet Earth. I was very fortunate to have been able to attend the 2011 sessions, where, among other things, I was able to learn about “book sprints” (whereby a book, having been researched, is collectively authored and printed by 5 or 6 people in three or four days in a single city), “Facebook hacking” (imagine meeting someone whose life obsession is creating a “dislike” button for Facebook users), digital democracy, and electronic music triggered by facial impulses (see Daito Manabe, below right, with the author).
Now that, in the intervening year, revolution has swept the planet and North Korea and China are both still standing tall, East Asia watchers can catch the live stream, on February 4, 16:30 Berlin time, 2012 of Katrien Jacobs’ evocative and timely presentation entitled (in truly bracing transmediale style, and surely to the approval of all the “hacktivists” there who have not yet seethed within the Great Firewalls of the Middle Kingdom), “Patriotism, and Paranoia on the Chinese Internet.”
Not to be perceived as lightweight or merely sensationalist, Dr. Jacobs, who is on the faculty of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (香港中文大学), has produced a book on related themes and blogs about her work approximately bi-weekly.
- The Telegraph reports in alarmist fashion about Hu Jintao warning, as the newspaper headline puts it, of “cultural warfare from the West”
- A closer examination of the story indicates that Hu Jintao’s “battle cry,” above, was a speech given on October 18, 2011, that was republished yesterday in the preemminent journal for CCP theory, Qiushi (Seeking Truth / 求是).
In fact most of the speech is not at all about the West, but the need for more powerful socialist culture. However, the key detonating sentences in this long and rather boring speech are, after a discourse on China’s rising soft power, as follows:
同时，我们必须清醒地看到，国际敌对势力正在加紧对我国实施西化、分化战略图谋，思想文化领域是他们进行长期渗透的重点领域。我们要深刻认识意识形态领域斗争的严重性和复杂性，警钟长鸣、警惕长存，采取有力措施加以防范和应对. At the same time [that we develop our cultural industries and gain international advantage thereby], we must see with utmost clarity that hostile international forces are currently stepping up the implementation of Westernization in China, attempting to do so via in a variety of strategies; their long-term focus is on infiltration [渗透/shentou] in the ideological and cultural fields. We should thoroughly understand the seriousness and complexity of this ideological struggle, remaining vigilant (lit. “always keep the bell ringing“), ever alert, and taking effective measures to prevent and respond to [the challenge of cultural infiltration].
The full text of the article is available in rough English via Google Translate here.
- My own evidentiary contribution to the discourse on Hu Jintao’s retrograde and conservative tendencies with regard his extensive work in “socialist culture” are described in this essay about some materials I found about Hu Jintao in East German archives in 2009.
- As usual, with reference to cultural diplomacy and the soft power discourse, JustRecently is already well ahead of the curve. His website has the most extensive open-source translation available of the Party’s “cultural document”, a document which stemmed out of the same meetings at which Hu Jintao weighed in above.
- In reading headlines about Hu Jintao’s fear of Western “infiltration,” I think it’s important to note that there are far more nuanced Chinese examinations of soft power out there. PRC scholar He Zengke published a rather wide-ranging article this past December 23 in a reformist journal surveying French and German modes of exerting soft power, noting:
France was one of the first countries to understand the role of cultural soft power. Napoleon once said that a pen was equal to 1,000 Mauser rifles*), and a former French minister of culture said that culture and the economy are one and the same battleground. French people believe that a cultural mission can take the place of a country’s military power. In 1883, France established the Alliance Française to promote French culture. Starting in 1959, France began to define the “First Five-Year Plan for the Expansion of French Cultural Activities”, and afterwards, 25- and 35-year plans etc. were gradually developed. From the total amounts spent and per capita, France belongs to the first-ranking countries worldwide. From that, it can be seen that France attaches great importance to the development and use of soft power.
法国是最早懂得文化软实力的地位和作用的国家之一。拿破仑曾经说过，一支笔等于1000支毛瑟枪。法国前文化部长曾经说过：文化和经济是同一场战斗。 法国人认为，文化使命可以代替国家武力。1883年法国就建立了法语联盟，在世界各地讲授法语，推广法国文化。从1959年起，法国开始制定“关于 在国外扩张和恢复法国文化活动的第一个五年计划”（1959－1963），后来又陆续制定了“二五”、“三五”计划等。法国的国际文化交流支出从总数和人 均来看都居于世界第一的位置。由此可见法国对发展和运用文化软实力的高度重视。[Translation here by JustRecently]
He’s essay reminds us again:
-For all the huffing and puffing about Confucius Institutes, the “hanban” is still behind such institutions as the Alliance Française when it comes to enrollments and influence globally, a fact which I reported in July 2010 (from a cafe in Seoul, awash in K-pop, WiFi signals, kimchee and bubble tea) via a translation of a Huanqiu Shibao interview with the Hanban head.
- Finally, the magazine Monocle (which I fittingly tend to read in international airports; this one was in Tokyo) recently did some comprehensive “soft power ratings” in which the US was #1 but France not far behind. China, by the way, was #17.
A few days in Shanghai rarely fails to reorient one immediately from wherever illusory place one has been prior. In Shanghai, China’s upward thrust is paired with its revolutionary guts, its past foreign dominance juxtaposed at every turn with the new impositions of 1949. Art of various kinds slides past taxi windows, and the low and sulfurous scent of commerce being transacted hand over fist leaves a low undertone to practically every act undertaken after noon.
Every visit to Shanghai is worth the price, but it remains possible to waste the experience, frittering away one’s time in sullen Western cafes from Seattle and reeking of a desperate quest for WiFi, or in being too rapidly sated by a stroll along the Bund as the sole recognition of the shadows of the 19th century, when in fact a Li Hongzhang-Alfred Thayer Mahan redux is perpetually in motion in the newspapers that so rapidly populate one’s backpack.
What is a wasted visit to Shanghai? Surely, it would be a visit absent a stroll along the long spine of Huaihai Road. There looms the Shanghai Municipal Library, that object of lust for many a researcher with a hunger for the dead, for old magazines, for epochs reorganized and reclaimed, for the first Chinese Republic. Just beyond the great translucent book drop of the library, which neatly displays and precatalogues what patrons have been dropping into its great and vigilant plastic innards, the American Consulate squats in colonial splendor behind high cream walls. Once, enchanted by a new digital device and the music positively throbbing from a scratchy erhu by an old man under those walls, I there kicked a can of RMB coins in every direction. It was a worthy metaphor for Shanghai: desire – for experience, for documents, for modernity, for funds — radiating in every direction, abundant technology colliding in mistaken entwining with a dental casualty of some unnamed province, fingertips hardened by rural farming in the one case and by urban typing in the other, scattering metallic largesse to the sound of a Communist war song in the shadow of muted American power.
And just beyond, beyond a bend on Huaihai Road, rises a large round pillar, the largest bulwark of Western music on the mainland between Tokyo and Calcutta, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. To come to Shanghai and miss the opportunity to visit such a site would truly be counted as wasted.
Thumbing through the shelves at the Conservatory bookstore is always rather instructive: ethnomusicological research at the institution is abundant, and the publications in this realm are rapid and interesting. Titles like “PHONE”… proliferate. Western-educated scholars have returned to Shanghai in droves, and their work fuels this city’s prodigious growth not simply in GDP but in lists of published work, or things in the category of what some idealistic people with no regard for the convincing heft of aircraft carrier ordinance might call “cultural capital.”
Then I ran across an intriguing new collection of cello scores “in the style of [Chinese] ethnic minorities” which I proceeded to purchase. Upon negotiating my way through a few large crowds of Japanese moms retreating out of the campus with their children, each person radiant with the kind of upward gestalt that only in-tune group singing can provide, I went to the airport, flew to Chengdu, and there reunited with one of my cellos in order to test which of the “ethnic talents” who was writing for cello was most worthy of my attention.
Shanghai was thus dispatched.
Immediately upon opening the score in Chengdu, I was struck most by the piece “Autumn Song [秋之歌]” by Kim Jongpyong, or Jin Zhengping [金正平]. Judging from the textual introduction to the collection (focusing on “high talents from among our country’s ethnic minorities”), as well as the svelte harmonic style and harmonically supple idiom, I assumed the composer to be a successfully struggling ethnic Korean music graduate from, say, the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing sometime in the mid-1980s. If the reader be a bit uncertain, such a provenance should be regarded as a complement: the young talents like Gao Ping who emerged out of the conservatory milieu in that era are cutting new pathways into the musical realms all over the world, and justly so.
I was quite wrong about his age, and his relationship to China’s cultural bureaucracy. Jin’s full biography is available on the website of the Association for the Research of Chinese-Korean Music, to be explained shortly.
Last year I made two trips to the Jianchuan Museum Cluster in Sichuan, the PRC’s only private collection of museums and facilities which are completely ground-breaking in their somewhat individualistic take on curating and historical interpretation in general. The museum cluster, owned and very much directed by the entrepreneur Fan Jianchuan, includes a museum of the Cultural Revolution, among other things.
An excellent overview of the museum’s themes (with video) is available here; my colleague in Tokyo, Jeff Kingston, wrote this piece for Japan Times after visiting me to talk Chinese nationalism in Chengdu last winter.
But here is the most recent reporting from the museum site, from the pen [aus der Feder] of Angela Kockritz, one of Germany’s best reporters in the PRC.
et la pièce de résistance
This guest posting comes from the sizzling keyboard of Paul Manfredi, head of the Chinese Studies Program at Pacific Lutheran University and the author of China Avant Garde, one of the Internet’s best analytical stops for insights into the Chinese contemporary art scene. Manfredi’s blog is a rich blend of image and word, and highly recommended. My apologies, by the way, to readers for taking so long to post this essay which I received several weeks ago! — Adam Cathcart
Reevaluating Ai Weiwei
The news of the release of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei on June 22 brought a collective sigh of relief, though one quickly tempered by the fact that the once outspoken Ai is for the time being unable to express anything at all. This unfortunate situation for Ai, however, is not a surprise or even much of a concern to many people in China itself, and that includes artists whose fates are most closely linked to Ai Weiwei. Consumers of news media in English, meanwhile, could hardly be faulted for misunderstanding this fact given the relentless reporting on the fate of this largely unrepresentative Chinese artist. What, in fact, Ai Weiwei’s experience does occasion is a deeper reflection on what it means to be a Chinese artist in the present globally linked, internet savvy, but also often blatantly ignorant media culture.
To begin with, a question: of all the ways we might describe the experience of any contemporary Chinese artist, why has “oppressed” become so prevalent? Clearly, Chinese government control of artistic expression is a factor in contemporary China, as it has been for decades. It is not, however, the only factor, or even a major factor for most artists. Moreover, as a factor, one must recognize that part of the reason Chinese artists like Ai Weiwei are popular on the world stage is precisely because of Chinese government oppression, or at least the perception of such impression.
I say perception because for those artists not inclined to play chicken with Beijing authorities, which is to say most Chinese artists, such oppression is not part of their experience. Indeed, any casual visitor to north-eastern Beijing can see that this is not an artistic culture blighted by government authoritarianism. Instead, such a visitor will see is the thriving 798 Art Zone, a major tourist destination, and the neighboring Caochangdi, Songzhuang, Blackbridge, and Huangtie art districts all vying for position of next “center” of Chinese art. If global media organizations would taken an in these places a very different picture of the life of the contemporary Chinese artist would emerge. Take for instance Huang Rui, the actual founder of the 798 district and former colleague of Ai Weiwei in the critical avant-garde art movement of the late 1970s. When asked his views on the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Huang expressed appreciation for China’s accomplishments and optimism for the direction of contemporary Chinese art. Huang’s interviews were never published. Huang, it should be noted, is no stranger to conflict with the Chinese authorities, and he regularly tests the boundaries of freedom of expression and assembly. Yet, his lapse into something like pride for his country’s achievements earned him censure from Western media outlets not interested in such a message. By contrast, Ai Weiwei’s interviews of early 2008 enjoyed broad coverage, and it was from that point that Ai began to rise as heroic, anti-government activist.
But the ultimate problem with reporting on Ai Weiwei as oppressed artist struggling against faceless government authority is that it’s inaccurate. Much of what Ai has produced in recent years actually targets the ideologically rigid value systems that constant repetition of the heroic artist narrative itself reflects. From photographing a middle finger waved at the US White House, to branding valuable Chinese antiques with Coke and other corporate insignia and then shattering them, to hand carving hundreds of thousands of sunflower seeds to be crushed underfoot, Ai challenges a wide range of assumptions, some of which underlie even his own valuation in the world art market. But this challenge extends beyond the world of art. Ai’s true value now is as a kind of global public intellectual, a place from which he challenges all of us to take more seriously the way we handle information in this transnational and transcultural media marketplace. Let’s hope that sometime soon we will be able to take up his challenge.
- Paul Manfredi
Today in Berlin, I was cruising through the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, the businessman’s preferred paper, for German response to the Wen Jiabao visit when I ran across an article so completely fascinating that I decided to translate it for inclusion on the blog, as it actually adds something new to the giant slapping waves of somewhat repetitious commentary in the area of China’s relations with Germany.
This translation represents 脑力劳动, which is to say, it is mental labor which has not been strained through the Google-translate machine. Critiques of any sort are therefore welcome. Link to the original German is here.
Mark Siemons, “Wenn das der Mao wuesste! [If Only Mao Were So Unknown!],” Review of the Beijing Production of “Hitler’s Stomach [希特勒的肚子], Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, 28 June 2011, p. 33. [Translation by Adam Cathcart.]
Hitler as a tai chi-practicing pensioner with a birdcage in his hand, Hitler listening to rock ‘n roll with Eva Braun, pregnant Hitler: All of this can be seen in the Beijing “Pioneer Theater of the East,” not far from the central commercial mile of Wangfujing, led by Meng Jinghui, one of China’s most celebrated theater directors.
The premise of the play, as if Beijing were trying to overtake the Berlin Volksbuehne by point of subversive trash, arises out of no particular provocation. In Meng’s young work, “Hitler’s Stomach [希特勒的肚子]“, the historical Gestalt [form/形状] of the title character never really emerges: when it comes to ideology or crimes against humanity, nothing in the least is said. There are, however, plenty of Hitlerian logos: the uniform, the mustache, etc., and a sly joke connected to contemporary China: Hitler as a curious foreigner, but one that everyone knows.
Before the commedian Liu Xiaoye takes the stage, films are posted of air attacks on Berlin, and two young men read news reports from the last days of the [European] World War. But then the entertainer arrives, saying: “Don’t take this all so seriously, I just want to talk with you a little bit.” And straight away, he has the public — mainly youth wearing floral summer clothing — laughing at his omnipresent lies: “Today, everything is stable. The economy is stable, the prices of goods are stable. And the most stable thing of all is speech.”
It is as ever in the traditional improvisational Beijing theater, but then into the conference, suddenly, comes Hitler: He slumps in his uniform, screams in German about the Day of the Party [Parteitag] and is greeted by two young dancers with the Hitler salute. Later, the commedian also arrives wearing a costume of Charlie Chaplin, whose film “The Great Dictator” Hitler requests and watches a future scene play out of his suicide in the Fuhrerbunker. Two metrosexual Wehrmacht solders get into a fight which comes to resemble lovemaking during which the stage is full of dancing and Hitler’s pregnancy is made clear like a flatulent joke that farts its way to the very end of the play. Before his suicide, Hitler asks to be sold to the Chinese as pork.
The author notes everything that is grotesque, as a form of persiflage [bantering / 逗嘴] with history. Perhaps the desire also here is to make fun of the contemporary [Chinese] dictatorship via the historical mirror.
But as to the degree to which history is used as a premise – and done so completely without analysis or critique — forces one to ask, unavoidably: How is this possible? How is it possible that in Beijing, in the year 2011, that a director in intellectually respectable circles can depict the recent 20th century this way? And, moreover, how is it possible that in these circles, no one finds anything objectionable about this?
The answer can be found elsewhere, in the fact that in China, Hitler remains a somewhat unreal figure. Recently, a posting on Kaixin, the Chinese Facebook, reported that Hitler had been raised in Vienna by a Chinese family. As a consequence, Hitler for his whole life maintained a grateful attitude toward China, and his greatest wish was that Germany and China could dominate and divide the world together after the war. Almost none of the four thousand commenters on the page cast this idea in the slightest doubt. On the contrary, 4.6% said they took Hitler as a personal hero, and 38.8% said they believed Hitler had been raised by a Chinese family.
Of course in the portrait of history put forth by the Chinese Communist Party, there is little sympathy for German National Socialism (e.g., Naziism). Indeed, Party history is rather straightforward: If anything, it enjoins Japanese revisionists to take up the German method of Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung (“coming to terms with the past”). But the material collateral of Naziism, its propaganda, its fuction in the moral and political realm, remains as a kind of folklore in China, in spite of its absence from the official CCP ideology. Many Germans who have travelled to China have had the irritating experience of being confronted with the Hitler Salute — intended as a sign of goodwill from the Chinese, not as criticism.
Ignorance thus mixes with a rude historical Darwinism among those who are impressed by, above all, how strong Hitler made Germany. In the internet form “Baidu Zhidao [白度知道 / "Baidu Knows"] the question is frequently asked: “Was Hitler a great man?” Many answers will take your breath away, with their cold-blooded and relativistic approval of power. ”Any victor would be criticized for being a criminal,” writes one. Another says, “Had he united the world, he would have been the greatest man in all history.”
Hitler thus appears as a reincarnation of China’s First Emperor [Qin Shihuangdi / 秦始皇帝], whose uncontested brutality was considered by a few — not least of which was Mao — to have been the necessary precondition for unifying China.
One also gets the impression that here, Hitler is taken less for his actual historical uses than as a reflexive turn on a Chinese theme, one put forth particularly by the Communist Party, of duty to lift china out of the humiliations of the 19th century and vault China back into great power status.
Another internet commentor describes not Hitler, but instead the Versailles Treaty, as responsible for the Second World War. The Treaty of Versailles, in which Germany failed to relinquish its colonial possessions to China, but which instead were taken by Japan, sparking patriotic movements for restoration in both China and Germany. This is the connection between the real Hitler and the one played on stage, one totally missed by the absurd fantasies played among some Chinese.
Otherwise, the propaganda principle holds: Even the evil Hitler, describes one forum reader, was an environmentalist who respected women, loved art, and read philosophy. Thus is it is no suprise to read an immediate response on the forum: “Hitler is as great as Mao — more positive points than mistakes.” With this as premise, the kids in the theater can almost take the play as an exhibition of opposition.
Translator’s Note: Although the article was written in early June, and run of the play has now been completed, it is an interesting commentary itself by the somewhat taciturn editors of FAZ to release this piece today, just as it was clever statecraft by Angela Merkel to welcome Wen Jiabao in Wansee at the lakeside estate of an artist,
Ernst Thalmann Max Liebermann, who had been censored and silenced by the Nazi Party in 1933. To be quietly criticized by Germans, as anyone who has performed here knows, is almost as painful as an explicit rebuke. But more about the Chancellor, and the Artist, and the Premier, in another post…
For the last two months, a stack of German newspapers and internet print-outs about the case of Ai Weiwei seems to have accrued first in my bags in Berlin and Paris and then in my offices in Seattle and Tacoma. What a treasure-trove of perceptions and misperceptions, opportunity and loss, of connection do these papers constitute! In a fantasy world that demands little more than internet and newspaper commentaries from the East Asia professoriat, the bulk of these essays would be translated and summarized on this blog, leading rather naturally to a much larger and heavily-footnoted project on the role of culture and politics in the Sino-German relationship.
Teutonic methods demand Teutonic scale, and an endurance for the word and its steady stacking, rather like a city prepares for siege.
The story of Ai Weiwei deserves such stacking, as it represents Germany’s willingness to stand up for the rights of individual artists even as Germany integrates (and competes) with China most skillfully in the economic realm.
And the story extends to the city of Berlin, one of my favorite regular haunts. So, why not add Ai Weiwei’s potential studio in that city to my list of places to go, along with the Music School where cello sonatas are rehearsed, and the Bundesarchiv where documents about things ranging from North Korean cultural ties with East Germany to Japanese reporters in Nazi Germany are hunted down?
Well, because one’s time is perpetually limited, and my best student writer on the contemporary art world has transferred to Whitman College. (O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer!)
Fortunately, other writers and commentators have picked up the ball — or the Han dynasty vase — and are running headlong forward with it in a fresh study of perspective.
Tops among them in terms of consistency and content is the new blog Free Ai Weiwei , hosted on Posterous. This appears to be the ultimate internet resource on all Ai-related news. The site is updated daily (“Day 52,” today’s ominous title) and provides a nice range of links and developments. If “Der Fall Ai Weiweis” interests you in the least, I would bookmark the page and see what it has to offer.
For those who wish not to click, a healthy excerpt from the blog’s analysis should suffice:
We are living in the age where nothing has something to do with something else when it comes to doing business with China. That is the impression you get while reading Artinfo’s interview with Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The VMFA will be the first museum to exhibit its collection in the Palace Museum in Beijing. It was announced only last week.
With Ai detained, should VMFA deal with China?
Asked if this deal with China could not be seen as an endorsement of Ai Weiwei’s detention and “a propaganda coup for the Chinese”, Nyerges answers:
No, never once would that thought have crossed my mind...
On a practical level in terms of the staff, certainly Ai Weiwei’s arrest was a topic of conversation, but quite simply our partnership and relationship with the Palace Museum has nothing to do with the Ai Weiwei situation whatsoever.
Martin Roth, currently director general of Dresden’s State Art Collections and soon to be director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, was asked if it would not be anappropriate answer to Ai’s detention to withdraw the exhibition “Art of the Enlightenment” from Beijing. He answered (paraphrased): A: Ai Weiwei is making a lot of noise all the time, that’s why the media have an obsession with him. B: Without China the production of the Phaeton would have to be closed down. (The Phaeton is a luxurious automobile built by Volkswagen in a factory near Dresden.) A little more blunt and you could think he was in the furniture (or firearm) business.
The notion of Germany’s economic needs as taking primacy over its ability to take a principled stand against Ai’s detention was early on expressed in a furious editorial in Der Tagesspiegel in Berlin, the day after the following article was published in the same forum describing Germany’s total impotence in the case of Ai, indeed, the humiliation inflicted upon Germany’s foreign relations, the tangible slap in the face which Ai’s arrest consisted of in the immediate aftermath — the very afternoon, in fact — of German Foreign Minister Westerwelle’s departure from Beijing after the opening of the massive Enlightenment art exhibit there:
In early May, the immense temporary sculpture “Leviathan,” at Grand Palais Paris until 23 June 2011, was dedicated to Ai Weiwei:
The Guardian further describes the link to “Leviathan,” and the call to close galleries worldwide for a day in protest of Ai’s arrest.
Berlin may have summoned the Chinese ambassador to issue a rebuke last month, but no contracts, or exhibitions, are being cancelled as a result. Not that the CCP is sending thank you notes to Westerwelle, or sitting on its hands in the Sino-German dynamic of mutual criticism.
The respected blog The Peking Duck has a must-read post on a recent People’s Daily denunciation of Deutsche Welle, the German media service.
Was People’s Daily referring to this Deutsche Welle piece about how the German government felt snubbed by Chinese behavior, and the German cultural establishment prompted to debate the merits of exchanges, in the wake of Ai’s detention?
Finally, this Spiegel interview (in English) about Ai Weiwei with an architect whose frame of reference for all of this is bad-old-East Germany will certainly open a few eyes.